Inheriting the Burden of Evil

On the occasion of the anniversary of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, the semi-official LDS spokesperson on the issue Richard Turley has published an editorial in the Spectrum, which advises the Saints how to relate to “the worst event in Utah history.

One can hardly disagree with Turley’s recommendations in favor of facing the truth, honoring the dead (Turley means the victims, not the murderers who have in the meanwhile deceased), and continuing the dialogue. His advice regarding tolerance for other people’s view point, however, is somewhat off the mark.

The moral dimension of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is straightforward. It was murder. Defenders of the massacre can enjoy tolerance only for their right of free speech. It would be misguided to tolerate their point of view. Murder is unacceptable even if committed by members of our tribe. The defense of murder is also unacceptable. Instead of tolerating unethical nonsense, it seems to me that we have an obligation to confront non-sensical and unethical apologia that continues to be communicated in Mormon folklore.

However that is a minor point as Turley’s error can be easily remedied if one substitutes patience for tolerance. The defense of the murderers is intolerable but for pedagogical reasons, patience might still be the most effective attitude to reach Mormons who have trouble acknowledging evil in the history of our people.

Be that as it may, what troubles me most about Turley’s call for tolerance is that he places the same burden on the descendants of the victims as the descendants of the perpetrators.

I am not quite sure if Turley intended to refer to the emotional burden and the obligation of the descendant’s of victims and perpetrators as equivalent but that is what the text of his editorial suggests.

The killing of 120 people and the untold suffering of the survivors is a highly emotional matter. So is the burden carried by the descendants of those whose ancestors perpetrated the massacre and those who were blamed for it unfairly.

As a matter of manners and ethics, it is a mistake to depict the obligation between the heirs of the perpetrators and the heirs of the victims as equivalent. Especially since Turley speaks to a Mormon audience, he commits a serious analytical error when he juxtaposes the burden of the victims’ descendants with the burden of the perpetrators’ descendants without additional qualification.

There is no ethical equivalence between victims and perpetrators. Whatever obligation victims might have in reconciliation, it is dwarfed by the obligations of the perpetrators.

As a German, I have some experience with inheriting evil. Of course, I am not individually responsible for the Holocaust but it is part of my heritage, a heritage that has afforded me many benefits as well as the burden of the Holocaust. Neither am I individually responsible for the Mountain Meadow Massacre but as a Mormon it is an inseparable element of my cultural heritage. As I embrace the positive aspects of Mormon heritage, I inherit a degree of responsibility for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

German Jewish dialogue requires Jewish participation but Germans have a greater obligation. However useful Jewish empathy may be, as Germans we have an obligation of sympathy with Jews. That obligation is one-sided.

Jews do not have an obligation to sympathize with the SS. In fact, sympathy with the perpetrators of the Holocaust may well cross the line into unethical territory. Jews also do not have an obligation to feel sympathy for me as a German. It would be absurd to claim that Jewish people owe me anything. Any sympathy Jews have for Germans is a generous gift.

However horrible the Mountain Meadows Massacre was, it was not the Holocaust but the fact remains that as Mormons we belong to the people of the perpetrators. As such, we have the obligation to sympathize with the survivors of the Fancher party.

That obligation is one sided. Our sympathy is a down payment, however humble, on our community’s guilt. The sympathy of the survivors’ families would be a generous gift.

Richard Turley’s editorial goes a long way to make things right but he still shirks from arriving of the ultimate conclusion. We are a people of perpetrators. That’s our heritage.

This heritage comes with obligations. The families of the survivors have the right to demand that we question our theology, our leaders, and our ancestors. As Mormons, we have the obligation to meet these expectations.

One cannot claim to “face the truth” and then approach one’s victims and their heirs sparing one’s own tradition and demanding in effect parity. In the context of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, there is only one proper attitude: submission and humility.

The German Nobel Peace Price winner Willy Brandt understood that when he approached the Polish victims of German war crimes. Personally, Brandt had nothing to do with the Nazis or their crimes. At the time, he had been a left wing labor activist who became a refugee rather than cooperate with the Hitler regime. He then served in the Norwegian forces fighting Germany during World War II to spend the remainder of the war in Swedish exile.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketYet when Willy Brandt arrived in Warsaw, he went on his knees at the Polish monument for the unknown soldier.

Willy Brandt’s gesture went a long way to return Germany from pariah status in Europe. Until we Mormons demonstrate that we recognize the evil in our midst without qualifications, it is not surprising that some of our neighbors continue to relate to us with suspicion.

Turley’s most troubling remark is, of course, the unsubstantiated claim that people have been unjustly accused of being implicated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I can only make sense of that statement as an apologia for Brigham Young. Whatever Young’s direct involvement in the massacre may have been, it is beyond dispute that he obstructed the federal investigation into the crime and ordered and supervised the defilement and destruction of the victims’ burial monument. What a contrast with Willy Brandt.

That is an observation that applies not only to Brigham Young but also to Gordon Hinckley and apparently to Richard Turley. At the moment of the crime, Brandt had been an enemy of the criminals for whom he apologized. Yet he realized that as a German and the leader of Germans that he had partaken of a tradition whose evil elements he had to address. Instead of making excuses, Brandt led and paid a price in domestic politics when a large number of Germans failed to appreciate the meaning of his gesture.

Many of the Saints and their religious leaders have yet to emulate Willy Brandt’s example. They never will until Mormon intellectuals like Turley clarify the ethical implications of evil’s heritage. Our responsibility is the crime. Therefore we are not equals of the victims’ heirs.

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9 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    Well said, Hellmut. Too much LDS writing on the Mountain Meadows Massacre is ultimately about us, and our hurt or embarrassment at the event. Healing happens best when the aggressor seeks forgiveness, as Brandt did, rather than denial or obfuscation, as leaders before him did.

  2. exmoron says:

    Well put, Hellmut. I, too, am waiting for a sincere apology from LDS Inc. I’m not holding my breath, but waiting. It’s not that I hold any Mormons alive today responsible for it, but it is part of the heritage of Mormonism. If you adhere to the institution, you accept responsibility at some level.

    This is just as true with the war in Iraq. I didn’t vote for the war nor the President who started it, but when I travel internationally, I apologize nonetheless. I never supported it, but “my people” are the ones doing it, and for that, I’m sorry.

  3. belaja says:

    Excellent post, Hellmut. Thank you.

  4. KimberlyAnn says:

    Hellmut, your essay was lovely. Thank you.

  5. NorthboundZax says:

    Great post, Hellmut! Very insightful.

    One note: When I read about those unjustly implicated in the massacre, I think of the Paiutes who have taken way more than their share of the blame over the years. Is it possible that Turley was referring to them? If so, I think that his statement might be viewed as a positive. :not sure:

  6. Hellmut says:

    Good point, NorthboundZax. That Turley might have thought about the Paiutes didn’t even occur to me but your hunch makes a lot of sense.

    If that’s what Richard Turley meant, my apologies for misinterpreting that statement.

  7. Michael says:

    Hellmut, in today’s S L Trib there is a commentary from a prof at Weber State that mentions Brandt. Here is the URL: You might want to ask him for a copy of the paper he mentions. Sounds like something you’d be interested in.

  8. I am curious as to why an apology is masked by a call to stop placing blame on the decendants? I think what he (Morg) was trying to say was…”stop blaming the Church today for the things of the past”.
    Not a very convincing apology, when you continue to defend the leaders at the top for their followers actions.

  9. D L says:

    I know what a true “Christian” would do upon learning that followers had committed such an atrocity. In specific steps. But so far I have not been able to learn just what BY did after learning of the massacre. Esp the immediate several days after Sept. 11th. Does anyone know the answer?

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